Problem finding: even emulation requires brains

A few years ago I was advising three guys who wanted to start a t-shirt company business in Mexico. These guys were still in college and were studying graphic design.

In Mexico there is a brand called Naco that started a trend of inverting words so something like AC/DC looks like AISI/ DISI. People found this funny and so these shirts started selling like hot cakes.

This idea has since been copycatted a million times over.

My friends saw that a lot of people bought these shirts (including them) and they thought they had better ideas for design and could do the same.

They saw the solution, but didn’t see the problem or new problem. They simply adopted the same assumptions Naco and all these other t-shirt companies had.

My friends logic was: If they can do it, we can do it.


This same mental dynamic happened to me 6 years ago with my first venture. At the time, ecommerce on the web was growing, there was a serious ecommerce transformation going on. One of my buddies said we should get into ecommerce because, well, everyone else is doing it. So he arranged for us to go to an ecommerce seminar where we would hear from ‘ecommerce experts’ on how to do this thing.

I said: ok, let’s get some information.

Here’s where it gets interesting. This seminar was full of old people (yes old). Retired people looking for something to do. My buddy said (with emphasis on exact words): If they can do it, we can do it. We have the technological know, we’re engineers. They’re old. It’s just selling. Let’s do this.

I wasn’t sold on it, my logic was: let’s pick these people’s brains and get insights before jumping into conclusions.

But like any good friend I said yes and we laid down 8K for a system that would let us create online stores for us and others.

This was a big fat failure.

Why did it fail? Because it’s not as easy as ‘if they can do it, we can do it’. It’s a load of emotional BS. We didn’t understand the problem. Period.

We assumed that whatever worked for others would work for us if we followed the recipe laid out. We assumed everyone would want an online store. Assumed. Assumed. Assumed.

There’s a reason for the quote: Assumption is the mother of all f**k ups.

We weren’t being creative.

The point is we need to understand the problem. It’s easy to get caught up in what a certain technology does or how someone else’s idea is working and then just adopt it. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it looks.

I know, I know, I keep coming back to the idea that benchmarking and emulating is stupid. But even emulation requires brains.

We should never lose sight of the problem we are trying to solve for our customers; think of how this elderberry extract company solved the problem for their customers of finding good elderberry products where no one else did it before.

Here are a few things we can do instead:

  • Focus on identifying new problems that the people we are emulating are overlooking, these provide us an opportunity gap to fill.
  • Think in increments. What can we do better? What sucks about the current solution and how can we improve this?
  • Look beyond the obvious use case. In our venture we were offering online stores when in reality we should had focused on online marketing. That was the real problem we should have been addressing.

Most importantly, remove all assumptions. Question them. Ask dumb question. Remove all doubt and get come clarity.

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